Key point: A prototype of the new sixth-generation fighter already exists. Will the F-35 be out of date sooner than expected?
Now that the Air Force has officially announced that it has built and flown a new sixth-generation fighter jet, many might wonder the following question: Could it be the stealthiest, fastest and most lethal aircraft ever to exist? What if it were built to be as stealthy as a B-21 bomber?
Granted, very little is known about what the actual design may look like, or which vendor built it, yet both Northrop Grumman and Lockheed have already worked on early sixth generation fighters. They both look stealthier than anything that has ever been seen.
This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.
“Lockheed Martin embraces the U.S. Air Force’s vision regarding the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter. As a company, we have implemented the full range of digital tools to realize this vision. From rapid design iterations, virtual production and sustainment these advanced capabilities ensure the military advantage our service members employ today and expect in the future,” John Losinger, spokesman for the F-35 program, Lockheed Martin, told TNI in a statement.
One thing which first meets the eye is that the stealth configuration of those Northrop and Lockheed images which are available show virtually no vertical structures. Lockheed’s picture shows a horizontal blended wing-body which looks flatter and more horizontal than anything ever seen. It also has no end tails or protruding “fins” anywhere.
This is significant because vertical structures, of any kind, present configurations and contours potentially more susceptible to being identified by return radar “pings” received by enemy air defenses. The absence of fins and vertical shapes in the images seem to indicate that there may be new possibilities when it comes to technologies enabling high-speed aerial maneuvering.
The engine inlets on the available Lockheed picture are elongated, aligned with the shape of the fuselage, underneath the wings and simply more blended than anything that has existed to date. This suggests new ways to manage the incoming air flow which is then to be compressed, combined with fuel and ignited to generate engine thrust. Also, the Lockheed image shows “underneath” engine inlets, as opposed to the B-2 and B-21 which have inlets on top of the fuselage.
The rendering looks like a dual-engine, yet the engines themselves appear as tiny “humps,” even more blended than a B-2 bomber. While a sixth-generation aircraft is almost certain to be much faster and more maneuverable than a bomber, one could almost say the fuselage looks somewhat similar to a B-2 or B-21 bomber, given the complete absence of vertical structures.
This is extremely significant, as bombers are by design built to be entirely undetectable to both high-frequency engagement radar as well as lower-frequency surveillance radar. Surveillance radar often stops short of being able to closely track, target or “engage” an aircraft, it can often determine if something of relevance is simply in the area.
The B-2 and B-21, however, are built to elude surveillance as well as engagement radar to conduct attack missions without an enemy knowing it is even there. Given its ability to remain entirely undetectable, B-2 and B-21 bombers are not built to dogfight or maneuver at massive speeds but rather engineered as stealthy, high-altitude bombers able to deliver attacks without being detected at all.
Accordingly, the absence of vertical structures is a large reason why stealth bombers are the stealthiest platforms in existence. This raises an interesting question. Could a super high-speed, maneuverable, multi-role fighter be built to be just as stealthy as a bomber? That would be a massive development.
Taking this concept a little further, it is well established that stealth fighter jets with some protruding vertical structures, while still able to avoid engagement radar, may be slightly detectable to surveillance radar. In short, an enemy might be able to detect that a stealth fighter such as an F-35 is “there,” but not be able to target it in any way. Actual targeting requires a narrow, extremely high-frequency radar signal able to track small movements and generate a more thorough rendering of an aircraft. Essentially, while it is extremely unlikely that even the most advanced engagement radar would be able to engage a fifth-generation fighter jet, it might be possible that an F-22 or F-35 could in some cases be slightly “detectable” to surveillance radar to some degree, depending upon the efficacy of an enemies’ air defense system.
This is why F-22 and F-35 fighters are built with high-speed maneuverability and advanced air-to-air weapons, as they can dogfight to survive if need be. Finally, none of this means the F-35 is going anywhere soon, as it may indeed be impervious to all kinds of radar. The Pentagon has been working on an elaborate upgrade process for the F-35, and plan to capitalize upon its technologies for years. In fact, the Air Force plans to fly the F-35 until 2070 or beyond.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.